Gender Neutral French

For this year’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Conference, I decided to direct my presentation in a new direction, away from analysis and towards more practical workshop information. As a linguist, I have been fascinated by changes in language that reflect our changing concepts of gender. Language is a fluid cultural artifact, and studying a language throughout different points in time provides insight into the evolution of the culture itself. As a French teacher, I find this question particularly interesting to examine in a gendered romance language. I therefore decided to focus my presentation on developments in French inclusive writing, including feminization of job titles, inclusive adjectival structures, and neologistic pronouns. Not only would this be informative for conference participants, but I hoped this would establish a base from which to write an article advocating for the inclusion of such linguistic developments in the world language classroom. (edit 4/1/20 – this article, “Addressing the Future of Gender in the Language Classroom”, is forthcoming in the Fall 2020 volume of Central Dissent. – edit 3/2/21 printing has been delayed until early April due to COVID)

The presentation slides can be accessed here.

While waiting for the paper to be published, I’ll give a quick summary of the presentation here:

I began with a brief introduction to how gender traditionally functions in a romance language so that those unfamiliar with French could follow the presentation and understand the importance of including the new inclusive writing systems. Since grammar explanations are a bit dry for anyone who’s not a grammar nerd like myself, this part of the presentation provided an excellent excuse to showcase my collection of French grammar memes. The problem with grammatical gender in French are, to my mind, summarized in three ways: it’s cis-normative, it reinforces the idea of gender as binary, and it’s inherently patriarchal.

I focused on three elements of this écriture inclusive that are essential to understanding current changes in French:

  • inclusive spelling and punctuation
  • neologistic pronouns
  • gendered occupational titles

Inclusive Spelling

These new spelling systems developed out of two primary problems. First, French is a masculine-dominant language, so groups of mixed gender must always be grammatically masculine. Secondly, French has no non-gendered options, such as the grammatical neuter in Latin or German. Since this is a developing system, there are many variants currently in use. Some insist that the masculine shouldn’t automatically dominate, using the gender of the majority instead. Some prefer using existing words to be more inclusive (for example, specifying “elles et ils” for mixed groups instead of only using the masculine form “ils” as usual). Not only is this second a rather clunky solution, both these options reinforce the gender binary. Therefore, a new system has developed using a combination of endings to include all genders.

  • étudiant.e.s
  • étudiantEs
  • étudiant(e)s – while used less in writing, this has long been the standard format for French textbooks to present new vocabulary or give instructions to students of unknown gender. Though this is considered a new system, it actually isn’t.

The advantages of this writing systems are numerous:

  • in the plural, it distinguishes between mixed and homogenous groups
  • it helps reduce the invisibility of non-male people
  • in official and impersonal writing, it accounts for all readers
  • in the singular, it provides non-binary and gender-fluid individuals a way to avoid gendering themselves

Predictably, public reception to this inclusive writing system has been mixed. Though I’d rather not dwell on the negative reactions, it is worth mentioning the Académie Française’s notorious 2017 proclamation that inclusive writing puts the entire French language “in mortal peril”. It is also worth mentioning that in November 2017, the government issued a statement forbidding inclusive writing in all official state documents so that they remain “intelligible” (Le Monde covered the debate here).  Despite the detractors, inclusive writing is becoming standard in advocacy groups, progressive websites, and news sources. Its popularity is increasing in advertisements and classrooms as well.

Neologistic Pronouns

As in English, the increasing prevalence of pronouns outside the traditional gender binary reflects changing cultural conceptions of gender. While “they” is more common as a singular pronoun than neologistic pronouns (such as ze/zir, xe/xem, etc.), this isn’t an option in French where “they” is gendered (as ils or elles, masculine and feminine respectively). Therefore, neologisms are the only solution. Most widely used are combinations of the subject pronouns il and elle (he and she): iel, ille, and ele. However, the second two sound like “il” and “elle”, so the difference is only visual (though some pronounce ille as [ij]). “iel” is discinct and sounds somewhat like “yell”.

Though “iel” is the most common neologistic pronoun, some find it problematic for its proximity to the gendered pronouns or for its implication that non-binary is some combination of the masculine and feminine. Therefore, other pronouns more distinct from il/elle are in use as well; ol, ul, em, and ael are all alternate subject pronouns.

As we’ve seen, gender in French goes way beyond just the subject pronouns. Inclusive writing helps adjectives agree with non-binary and gender-neutral pronouns, but alternate endings (-ut, -eu) are in use too. Other sites have thoroughly documented gender-neutral options for adjectival agreement and object pronouns for those who are interested in a deeper look into grammatical specifics (see resources below).

Occupations

The final part of the presentation touched on an issue closely related to patriarchal grammatical systems. In French, many professions (such as doctor, professor, author, lawyer, poet, firefighter, etc) traditionally developed only masculine forms. Though common usage has informally recognized feminine forms since the rise of women in the workplace starting in the 1970s, official resistance continued until the Académie finally approved feminine forms of occupations in February 2019.

Though prescriptivists will always complain upon encountering linguistic changes, language continues to evolve in its everyday usage to meet the needs of those who speak it. With the existence of the Académie, French is even more resistant to change than most languages – most don’t have an official entity dedicated to regulation and ‘preservation’ of the language. Regardless of their official recognition, developments in language provide insight into cultural and changes in society. Teaching these changes, even while still in flux, can help students connect to their target language as a living artifact. To my mind, this messy, changing version of language will always feel more authentic than the language presented in (prescriptivist) textbooks.

Resources

Handy quick guide to inclusive writing: https://lessalopettes.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/petit-guide-pratique-de-lecriture-inclusive/

Webcomic explanation of inclusive writing: http://dessinssansgluten.com/?page_id=770

The United Nations offers training opportunities for inclusive language in multiple languages:  https://www.un.org/fr/gender-inclusive-language/toolbox.shtml

Guide pratique pour une communication publique sans stéréotypes de sexe: http://www.haut-conseil-egalite.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/guide_pour_une_communication_publique_sans_stereotype_de_sexe_vf_2016_11_02.compressed.pdf

Agence Mots-Clés educates the public on its uses through training sessions, online and in-person: https://www.ecriture-inclusive.fr/

Collection of infographics specifically for teachers of French to create trans-affirming language classrooms: https://www.krisknisely.com/resources-for-educators

French blog on trans issues, including neologistic pronouns and corresponding grammar: https://entousgenresblog.wordpress.com/2017/04/19/quels-pronoms-neutres-en-francais-et-comment-les-utiliser/

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